Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Men and Memories

Creator: John Russell Young

Date: January 16, 1892

Whitman Archive ID: med.00621

Source: Evening Star 16 January 1892: 5–6. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a clipping in the Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1842–1937, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the interviews, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Nic Swiercek, and Shea Montgomerey

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Walt Whitman, "The Good, Gray Head That All Men Knew"—Whitman as He Was in the War Days—His Silent, Modest Heroism—His Theology and Politics—Reminiscences by John Russell Young.


Among my earliest indiscretions was Walt Whitman. So at least I was summarily informed one day by the famous Shelton Mackenzie, Doctor of Civil Law, literary editor and miscellaneous magnate on Forney's Press, a considerable and shining figure in his time, with a large place in criticism and current affairs, and memorable to me always for many friendly words and deeds. I had written something in an ambitious vein, and decorated the theme with lines from a book I had tumbled over in literary wanderings—a thin book, with solid, square type, wide margins, the frontispiece a figure in shirt sleeves, brawny, spry, nonchalant, one hand on the thigh, the other in the pocket; deep eyes, a sorrowful face and lips of expectation. Out of this book I had dug something—I have long forgotten what—which seemed to beautify my composition. Mackenzie gave me due monition. No gentleman ever read such a book. No gentleman ever referred to it in the presence of ladies. It was unspeakable. And if I had ambitions, as the good Mackenzie pointed out in his emphatic, paternal way, I must never have it known that I had kept company with such a writer. Were there not Thomas Moore, and Clarence Mangan, and Thomas Davis, and all that radiant galaxy of Irish poesy, beautiful with the gems of genius, that a young writer like myself, a well enough meaning reporter, who might even some day be an editor, could not accept with profit to my fame and no peril to my immortal soul, not to speak of my standing in society?


Whitman was the author of the lines, and my quoting them among my earliest indiscretions. I accepted the admonitions of Mackenzie, and for a long time literary relations with Whitman were maintained under furtive conditions. The wise, prudent Mackenzie spoke from his own conservatism, which was likewise the literary judgment of the hour. Whitman was not respectable. Mackenzie also had high, antique notions as to what was proper in one's literary sympathies. He had lived when George the Third was king. He had been the friend of Moore and Southey, had supped with Sir Walter Scott. Deep in his heart he saw much that might be mended in Tennyson, as well as in Thackeray and Bulwer and others of the "new writers." Whitman had come upon him,—somehow,—no one knew whence or wherefore;—how did he come? "One book last summer," wrote Emerson to Carlyle, "came out in New York; a nondescript monster which yet had terrible eyes and buffalo strength, and was indisputably American, which I though to send you. But the book throve so badly with the few to whom I showed it, and wanted good morals so much, that I never did. Yet, I believe now again, I shall! It is called Leaves of Grass, was written and printed by a journeyman printer in Brooklyn, New York, named Walter Whitman, and after you have looked into it, if you think; as you may, that it is only an auctioneer's inventory of a warehouse, you can light your pipe with it." I cannot find that Carlyle ever received the book. The Boston impression referred to, that Whitman "wanted good morals," had permeated Philadelphia. This was what Mackenzie felt, and so my wise preceptor,—seeing that I was not only reading but quoting him, awakened me to a sense of the indiscretion.

Yet, somehow, there were things in Whitman that I found in no other book, unless I went back among the Hebrew prophets. The wanting in "good morals" never occurred to me. Then, as now, when I look at Whitman with maturer eyes, when I see him accepted and ruling as one of the influences of the nineteenth century, I was never in sympathy with those who deemed him an immoral writer. He was an exemplification of nature. I should as soon think of finding immorality n his writings as in the antique statues of the Louvre, in the paddocks of the Derby, or the Zoological Gardens. In Byron, yes! In a dozen other writers, sin exultant and in rose-tinted hues; the immorality that would weaken b mockery or invective the delicate sense of right and wrong, which underlies the devotion we call love—this with too much abundance. But Whitman, as I read him, never gave a thought which could awaken the sense of shame in those not prone to shame. We were a long time coming to this recognition. I am not sure that we have reached it in America, but it will come, as it did in England years ago. The most original writer of our day, a generation since won across the sea what had been denied at home.


I saw Whitman in war times and later with an experience akin to that of some Athenian who had known Socrates, and perhaps followed the grand pug-nosed old loafer from place to place to hear him talk. If ever the loafer may come to his own, and we amend our Christian legends, Saint Socrates will be his patron. Even as I had fancied the shaggy-powed Socrates, floating about Athens, the eyes of the police upon him with their own thoughts as to his means of support, there was the suggestion of a parallel in Whitman. He had a conspicuous, massive figure, invariably in frowsy, picturesque raiment. You ran against him in out of the way places—ridding on the front of horse cars in conversation with the drive, giving pennies to ragged groups of negro children; sailing down Pennsylvania avenue, with that wonderful hat, that collar that was never buttoned, like some slow old three decker of a ninety-four, or trailing out towards the camps in suburban Washington with packages under his arms or in his coat pockets, presumably for the hospital. There was something of a rude, enviable splendor in his superb, rugged health,—the body dominant with wholesome conditions; something also of the Horace Greeley in this personality—the same shambling, go-as-you-please gait, Whitman rather the sturdier of the two; nothing of the inspired childhood; phenomenal touch of genius, as in the famous journalist. You were apt to find him silent, civil, not communicative, but cordial when you could reach him. He had no apparent companionships, apparently along with his teeming soul. A sincere, absorbed man, whom you never saw in what was called society, or at the rude homely routs of war days; nor at dinners—rather a gentleman of the pavement, even as Socrates must have been, when he loafed about Athens and said such living, wonderful things.


Whitman was in those days likewise a martyr and his sufferings were much talked about in our independent circles, although they seemed to sit blithely upon the shaggy, lounging wayfarer. The secretary of something or other, and by some odd twinge of fortune in the Lincoln Cabinet, had been told of Whitman's book, "the nondescript monster which had terrible eyes, and buffalo strength." This secretary, as I well remember him, was of the dumb species, with an obtuse faculty for believing everything he heard, and a good deal more than what he saw. He lived in an advanced, uneasy stage of Wesleyanism, and had as Senator represented a proper people. He was, as rumor ran, among the statesmen who had discovered that Grant's habits unfitted him for high commands. One White House story comes to me of his leaving Lincoln in wrath, "slamming the doors behind him" because of some Presidential obtuseness in regard to Grant. I think also that he was the hero of the famous whisky story of Lincoln, now an undying part of the literature of American wit. "Tell me, Senator, the brand of Grant's whisky, as I want to send a barrel to some of the other generals." One day his eyes opened to the enormities of Whitman's lines, and the poet was sent about his business. No such unholy hands should pollute the sacred records of that department. Whitman went, and might have been a gentleman of the pavement indeed in the saddest form, had not the poet Stedman, if I am sure in my remembrance, and John Hay found him access into another department. Here he toiled at small wages, living in humble lodgings, pacing Pennsylvania avenue of the afternoons of his daily errand to the hospital and camp.

I do not think that I ever heard Whitman refer to this halo of martyrdom incident, nor do I see any trace of it in his writings. He was not a man to nourish enmities nor recall dark remembrances. It was his nature rather to respect as a solemn dispensation the bereavement of the intellect which could see sin his poems, to regard it with the sympathy we give to the blind, the halt and the dumb.


Whitman was never in the idle throng. Occasionally glimpses of him at theatres. Of the noisy, frothy world he never seemed to be a part, was more at home with the chestnut tress and the shady lanes. I do not think that we knew then, as it has come to us since, that he was living a life of renunciation. He was very poor. His salary was small. Unfitted for the camp he had devoted himself to the hospital. He lived in reserved, honorable penury; practiced personal abstinence that every penny might to the hospitals. You will know what his involved if you knew the hospital life of Washington in war times. Those days after Manassas and Gettysburg! Was ever anything so pitiful under the sorrow-laden heavens? The long trains of the wounded, the slowly driven ambulances, each with its burden of pain; the public buildings, the churches, the private houses, the Capitol itself one vast hospital. Then it was that love and sympathy came to succor valor. Gentle women threw aside the cares of the nursery and drawing room to attend the wounded and dying. There was scarcely a Washington maiden, certainly no one of high degree, who did not have her daily mission to the wounded; her own little group of sufferers, whose pain she soothed, for whom she wrote letters and read the heavy hours away. Those days of Manassas and Gettysburg! We shall never know the depth and meaning of war until we know all they involved.


It was not for our poet to go to the wars, and his life was given to the camps, and especially to the hospital. It was humble work. I have seen nothing of it in canvas or stone, and somehow it has never found a note in the trumpet of fame. It meant everything to the stricken hero away from home. There were potions to be mixed, and wrappings to be released and bound again. There was a mother who must hear from her boy, some sweetheart who must know how the battle had swept through her hopeful, trusting life; for in those dreadful days it was not alone those slain in battle who really died. Here is a glimpse of it in Whitman's own prose: "I walked on to Armory Hospital," he writes, "took with me several bottles of blackberry and cherry syrup, good and strong, but innocent. Went through several of the wards, announced to the soldiers the news from Meade, and gave them all a good drink of the syrups with ice water, quite refreshing; prepared it all myself, and served it around." The news from Meade was about Gettysburg, "a big flaming placard on a newspaper office announcing the victory," and "a sort of order of the day from the President himself, quite religious, giving thanks to the Supreme Being, and calling on the people to do the same." Meanwhile the bells of Washington rang out their sundown peals—joy for the victory; joy over the Fourth of July. Then—the misery of it all—"a string of ambulances moving up Fourteenth street north, slowly wending along, bearing a large lot of wounded to the hospitals." The blue and the gray, side by side. Valor had done its work. Love and sympathy claimed its devotees as their own.

In this humble work Whitman spent his war days. It is, believe me, no want of respect and honor for the clamorous doings of the battle—the onset, the rally, the retreat—that makes me feel there was a singular kind of heroism in what this laboring clerk in the departments did for the suffering. Whitman himself, frank as he is about everything, has little to say of it in his poems. I recall the dead cavalryman, shot through the neck, and who could not live:

"Come, sweet death! be persuaded, Obeautiful death!
in mercy come quickly."

There are likewise some further lines—one of the few references to these scenes. As a rule, however, silence upon what even his admirers will regard as the noblest episode in his life:


I never was submerged by the Whitman enthusiasm, even in earlier days. I saw, as Emerson wrote, that in his book were incomparable things incomparably said. I recognized the wit of what I once heard from Wendell Phillips, that there were many kinds of leaves among the Leaves of Grass, but no fig leaves. It was an indolent book, so much that might have been weeded out, if the author had foreseen that his work was to be something more than a daring experiment. Ben Jonson's regret that Shakespeare, instead of never blotting a line, had not blotted a thousand, applied with more force to Whitman than to any great writer of the century except Southey and Byron. And even the improprieties which barred it from the bazaars, the leaves, which were not fig leaves, were the mere saying of things so obvious, that it seemed such a waste of time to say them. Why rob me of night and silence and mediation, and the self respect of my thoughts? Nor could one accept, without protest, the caprice which denuded his poetry of harmony. Whitman himself is my authority for the fact that he carefully culled out all touches of rhythm and metre and held to his rugged, uneven lines. This is a loss to literature. No one can read "My Captain" or "Pioneers" without seeing that there was capacity for music in the man, as definite and sweeping as in Swinburne or Poe. I know few lines with more harmony than these on Lincoln:

Hushed be the camps to-day,
And, soldiers, let us drape our war-worn wea-pons,
And each with musing soul retire to celebrate
Our dear Commander's Death.
No more for him life's stormy conflicts,
Nor victory, nor defeat—no more time's darkevents
Charging like ceaseless clouds across the sky.


Whitman's work was never apart from the charm of his personality. He was always Socrates loafing about the streets of Athens, and I never was him in the war days without the idea that he was a revelation of the old Greek. And as I was out of the range of the worship, with perhaps a taint of heresy, the exclusion of his books from circulation, attorney generals of Boston issuing warrants, Cabinet ministers chasing him out of departments as noisome things are chased with a broom,—this was such an ignominious business. Reasons of revenue and personal comfort were to be considered, as Whitman was poor; what he could save from his hire as clerk going to the soldiers in the way of syrups, tobacco and stationery. This justified such an editing of his works as would pass the muster of the police. It had been done abroad. Rosetti's edition, as decorous as Watts' Hymns, with the Rosetti pruning, I had found in England. Other editions were among the current literature of the railway stall and the shop. I was among those of Whitman's friends who hoped in some such manner for his larger, truer and more remunerative recognition.

In this mood of thinking I one day ran against Whitman ailing down Seventh street in his majestical, three-decker way, opposite the little brick house in which Jefferson had written the Declaration, then a sacred landmark of Philadelphia, but now crushed under the grinding heel of trade. He was steering for Forney's office, at Seventh and Chestnut streets. I was glad to hear that he meant to print his book, believing that the world was ripe enough to receive it and that it meant mended fortunes. But why not omit the "Children of Adam"—not above seven or eight hundred in addition, and then have such a book as was classic in England, what might readily be accepted in enlightened Sunday schools and in the apparent regions of fashionable society? And so on, with emphasis as precise and courteous as I could bestow upon one I so much admired and in whose material fortunes I had so deep an interest.


Whitman, who was always gentle and kind, a free, spontaneous nature, who never argued, but rather listened in benevolent, complacent wonder to argument, heard my speech as if it were by no means a new story. I soon discovered that I might as readily hope to have the Sphynx throw the Egyptian sands from her person and go into the mazes of a country dance, as for Whitman to change, eliminate or reserve one line. He had had it out with Emerson, he said, years before, and his mind was settled. What he had written he had written. It was his message to the world. If men and women would not have it as it came from his lips, it was not worth the having. As for the English editions which Rosetti and other friends had clipped and patched together, that was their affair. He had made a statue or nothing. There should be no torso in its place by his grace or leave.


There was a modest, resolute pride in all this, a sincerity I could not but respect; nor was the subject alluded to again. The fact that the book never had other than a languid circulation may have come from the agility of the police, or it may have been that it was ahead of its time, that the Whitman taste had to be formed. I thought of the weary years through which Wordsworth waited for recognition, and how poor Carlyle hawked Sartor Resartus around London only to find the reluctant, eleemosynary hospitality of some second-class magazine. Yet Wordsworth is now with the sovereign in their spheres, and Sartor Resartus is sold by the thousands every year. I had known also of a similar experience. That estimable gentleman, my dear and honored friend, Henry George, had written in those years a book which he felt, as Whitman and Carlyle before him, to be a solemn message to mankind. Composed under depressing circumstances in California, he had managed by heroic sacrifices to put it into type. Now if only some one would read his book! Henry George was then unknown beyond the threshold of his Pacific home. I was going to England, and took a dozen copies to peddle for him. I tried an old fashioned bookseller at the Haymarket, who had exalted people for customers—a royal highness, Lord Beaconsfield and the like. In a few days I called only to see the books on the shelves, and the bookseller debating with his conscience as to whether he should not go to the Old Bailey and plead guilty to the condonement of a conspiracy for overturning society. All that was left was to take the volumes and ask the ever willing Smalley, of the Tribune, to name some advanced thinkers of the "crank" species at whom I might throw them and have the rubbish well out of the way. This book was "Poverty and Progress." In a short time its sale in London had reached to sixty thousand a year. It gave its author world-wide fame as one of the foremost men of the time.


Whitman was no farther from the spirit of the age than Henry George, and the party which came around him was as devout in its allegiance, although much smaller than that which now follows that eminent and intrepid man. I know of no writer, except it may be Carlyle, in prose who has affected literary style more deeply than Whitman. The directness of expression, the cogency of thought, the precise, unmistakable sense of meaning which we see manifest and growing in current literature, is largely due to Whitman. His influence is rather with those who write than read. From the thinking world has come his appreciation, even as those on the mountains see the sun long before its glory floods the valley. No poet since Byron ever went more directly to his theme. No arrow ever left his bow without going home. Poe had this power when he had honesty and courage enough to use it. As in "Helen, thy beauty is to me," how surely the arrow goes home. I should say, however, that even above Byron—above all English writers since Goldsmith and Dryden, the faculty of clear, definite thought rests with Whitman. You are never lost in his pages. You never pause over a word, nor listen for the echo of a double meaning. The refinement refined of Tennyson—the mysticism of Browning—the lush and over-ripened euphony of Swinburne—there is nothing of this in the American. The sea is the sea—the sun is the sun—and you go with him to stream and meadow and waterfall, and disentangle the constellations, and sit by the fireside over the singing kettle, and read of old Kossabone, the sailor, who lived until he was ninety, and died watching the brig circumvent the winds.


In this simplicity, this sinewy strength will be found some of the reasons for this steady growth of Whitman's power and fame. Others will be found in the fact that more than any other poem he identified himself with the civil war. I recall no writings which contain so much of the war as the thousands lines he has given to it in verse; not to speak of much that is valuable in prose. "Calamus" and the body electric, the "Sea Drift" and Birds of Passage," much of this we should be loath to spare. Still it could be spared, while the loss to American literature of the war passages would be irreparable. The Song of the Banner at Daybreak, and President Lincoln's Funeral Hymn, reach the high water mark of American poetic genius; are as precious at least to the writer of these liens as Wordsworth's ode to Immortality, which in his humble opinion is the brightest reach of poetic genius that has been stained since Shakespeare.


You have the soul of the war—its majesty, its strength, its Titanic grandeur. "War!—be it weeks, months, or years, an armed race is advancing to welcome it." No anger, no truculence, no vindictiveness towards the South, no belittling the mighty lesson that the ages will find in that gigantic struggle by obtruding the wrath and vanity of the strife. Rather tenderness to the vanquished foe, as in these lines:

My enemy is dead—a man divine as myself isdead.
I look where he lies, white-faced and still inthe coffin, and draw near.
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips thewhite face in the coffin.

Whitman never troubles himself about the mere policies of the war, not even with Emancipation. There is no allusion, not even in the Lincoln poems, to the breaking of the shackles, or setting the negroes free, no swelling the current note of Lincoln adulation. Nor does the freedman appear in any part of the poet's noble vision of the restored Union. This cannot be attributed to indifference as to slavery, as one of the author's few bitter poems refers to the surrender of a fugitive slave by the Boston Federal courts. That it was a mere emancipation war, that these tremendous battles and sieges were for a negro's freedom,—Whitman will have no such thought! Emancipation is an incident, like the invasion of the Shenandoah or the bombardment of Charleston; a political policy, unworthy of poetic consecration, an expedient to break the power of the South. Its moral value is embraced in the higher value of a restored Union.

It was a Union war, the war of men, the war of the private soldier. There are few tributes to heaven directed genius—some lines on Grant as "man of the mighty days and equal to the days" the exception. The soldier is the theme. Our Pete hit in a cavalry skirmish and to die; the boy shot in the abdomen, "face as white as a lily;" the soldier found dead in his blanket; the elderly man with "well-grayed hair;" the sweet boy, with cheeks yet blooming; the silent grave in the woods and the scrawled tablet, "bold, cautious, true, my loving comrade;" the great drums pounding, the small drums whirring; the dead at rest, the wife, the child, the musing comrade the ones to live and suffer; the unnamed soldiers fallen in front in the lead, to whom he would rear a laurel-crowned monument high above the rest:—

Brave, brave were the soldiers (high-namedto-day) who lived through the fight;
But the bravest pressed to the front, and fellunnamed, unknown.


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